Maybe it’s the winters. Or the economy. Or just a seemingly innate sense of the next trend in fashion. Whatever the reason, knitting for pleasure hasn’t been this popular in Iceland since the telephone became a novelty in Reykjavík.
“I have a theory,” confides Ragnheiður Eiríksdóttir, her eyes smiling directly at me, her fingers deftly knitting an as yet unidentified pink concoction. “People work on their computers all day, but they also have a need to make something, to put something into the world.”
“Babies” is the first example Ragga (as she likes to be known) gives of this legacy, but knitting is the second: “You can take it everywhere. It’s not noisy or smelly, and it can be easy or difficult and everything in between.”
Not noisy, perhaps, but there is definitely a constant clacking hum this evening in the well-lit community room of Bústaðakirkja church just outside central Reykjavík, where dozens of well-heeled women are sitting in clusters of up to five around tables, knitting fiercely and conversing just as efficiently.
There may be no y-chromosomes present, but all generations are represented, from great-grandmothers with shocks of white hair and perfectly manicured fingers, to fresh-faced teenagers somewhat more tentatively stitching and purling something snugly to wear while waiting for the bus in blustery Icelandic weather.
White china mugs are stacked in rows on a table at the side, standing guard over a big bowl of freshly fried kleinur (Icelandic cardamom doughnuts) while waiting to be filled with freshly brewed strong coffee (even though it’s 9.30 pm). The ladies of the church’s Women’s Association have prepared these traditional treats for the break time at this two-hour Knitting Café.
And this café is all the rage.
“Everybody loves a knitter!” jokes Ragga, a former nurse and now self-described ‘knitting entrepreneur’ and co-owner of Knitting Iceland, a business devoted to almost any stitch-, pattern- or lopi-related topic imaginable.
Like at Iceland’s ubiquitous outdoor swimming pools, conversations at the Knitting Café run the gamut of topics, from upcoming births in the family to frustration with local politicians. Many in attendance choose to exercise only their digits and stay silent, leaving the decibels in the room at a low level.
The evening’s coddled children are undoubtedly the numerous varieties of wool: Warm, soft pastels for a child’s hat. Delicate grey for an Icelandic three-pointed shawl. Durable, water-resistant and fashionable lopi (Icelandic wool) for just about anything from sweaters to gloves to neck warmers. Piled on round tables or trailing onto the floor, with spare bundles forming soft mountains in handbags, centimetre by centimetre the strings are pulled, prodded, and gently tugged onto needles, counted in stitches, and checked every few minutes or so to make sure they are conforming to the overall pattern.
“Icelanders have a deep relationship to knitting,” explains Ragga.
After learning the skill from German merchants in the 17th-century, knitting became vital for families to keep each other warm during the long, harsh winters.
Thanks to the Icelandic sheep, which had arrived on the island with the first settlers in the late 9th century, supplies of wool were abundant. It was also ideal for the living conditions: lopi, as Icelandic wool is known, is composed of two different fibres, making is simultaneously warm, water-repellent and light.
Before the industrialization of the country, knitwear was actually Iceland’s second-largest export after fish.
“In the 17th century, we had a population of only about 40,000,” says Ragga. “But we exported almost 100,000 pairs of socks and mittens annually.”
Today people knit less out of necessity and more for enjoyment and a link to tradition. It is still part of the primary school curriculum.
“Here it is completely normal to knit,” Ragga says.
Icelandic volunteers knitting for the Red Cross
In fact, Iceland has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in knitting in the last five years or so. The durable lopapeysa, a wool sweater worn by farmers and fishermen since the 1950s, has made an appearance on fashion runways and is worn in various guises by trendsetting Icelanders. According to Hulda Hákónardóttir, Marketing Manager at Ístex, the country’s largest producer of lopi yarn, sales of wool and knitting products have tripled in the past three years.
Halfway through the two-hour café evening, Ragga delivers a brief presentation on new knitting patters and introduces Knitting Iceland’s new online knitting magazine. The Icelandic word for knitting pattern is the same as the word for recipe; there are “recipes” for new shawls and hats, lopi sweaters and pillows.
There’s a draw for a how-to DVD, and a copy of the book Whimsical Little Knits, followed by polite applause. The soft clacking continues throughout Ragga’s speech.
Just before heading to the coffee table to hydrate, Ragga reveals what she’s been busy knitting: a pair of socks for her first granddaughter-to-be, due any day now. Ragga’s tablemates concur that something hand-knit by a grandparent is a virtual pre-requisite for leaving the hospital after birth.
That shouldn’t be a problem for most newborn Icelanders. Knitting fervour seems stronger than ever.
“A lot of Iceland is intense,” says Ragga. “Our weather is intense and the economy is intense.” She laughs. “It’s the same in terms of time spent on knitting and the social activities surrounding it.”
The Knitting Cafés take place on the third Monday of each month. Admission is free (though donations for coffee and kleina are encouraged) and all are welcome, presumably provided they have needles and yarn. Knitting Iceland also offers special knitting tours of Iceland.
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